The Aston Martin Vantage claimed a glorious GTE-Am class one-two finish and a maiden Sebring success at the opening round of the 2022 FIA World Endurance Championship in a dramatic, weather-shortened, 1000 Miles of Sebring on Friday.
The NorthWest AMR Vantage GTE, driven by team owner and 2017 world champion Paul Dalla Lana (CDN), works driver Nicki Thiim (DEN) and David Pittard (GBR) ran at the front for most of the 8-hour race, and thus were in prime position to capitalise when local weather warnings forced a red flag and an early halt to the contest. It meant the #98 crew claimed their first FIA WEC win with the turbocharged V8-powered Vantage while last year’s GTE Am Championship runners-up TF Sport, in another Vantage, finished second.
The result marked a superb WEC return for Thiim, who is back in the series fulltime for the first time since clinching the GTE Pro title in 2020, while for Dalla Lana it marked a 17th career win, moving him to third in the all-time WEC class wins list. For Pittard it was the perfect debut on the world stage as Aston Martin scored a 50th class win in FIA WEC competition.
Aston Martin Racing’s three FIA WEC partner teams, D’station Racing, NorthWest AMR and TF Sport all returned to Sebring having shown promising speed during the previous weekend’s official ‘Prologue’ at the Florida circuit. That potential was emphasised further when Ben Keating (USA) put the #33 TF Sport Vantage GTE he shares with works driver Marco Sørensen (DEN) and Florian Latorre (FRA) on the category pole position. AMR NorthWest’s Dalla Lana completed an Aston Martin class ‘front row’ with second position.
When Friday afternoon’s race began, however, it was Dalla Lana who took just a handful of laps to assume the lead and he swiftly began to pull out a significant advantage. He and co-drivers Pittard and Thiim – a two-time WEC GTE Pro champion – extended the lead to over a minute, only to see it wiped out in the fourth hour when the race was stopped for an accident. When racing resumed the trio set about re-establishing their cushion, and were rarely troubled at the head of the field after that.
Pittard, on his FIA WEC debut, was himself 45 seconds clear when a second stoppage – this time to observe local laws to protect corner workers from the threat of lightning – again decimated that lead with just over an hour to go. As the threat of lightning continued to linger though, green-flag running never resumed, and a result was declared with 20 minutes of the planned eight hours remaining.
“It was a very good day at the office. I’m so proud of Paul,” said Thiim. “He put in a fantastic double-stint, which set-up the victory for us in many ways. We had two red flags, which didn’t help, but that’s part of the game and we brought it home. It feels really good to win in WEC again and it’s a nice way to start the 2022 series.”
Joining NorthWest AMR on the podium were TF Sport, who played a clever tactical game; waiting until the final phase of the race to put two-time FIA GT WEC Champion Sørensen aboard its Vantage GTE, giving Keating and Latorre the early driving responsibilities. Getting behind the wheel in third place with two hours remaining, the Dane closed a nearly 30-second gap to the second-place car in just half an hour and overtook for the runner-up spot just five minutes before the red flags were shown.
D’station Racing impressively made it three Vantage GTEs inside the top six as its trio of Satoshi Hoshino (JPN), Tomonobu Fujii (JPN) and Charlie Fagg (GBR) produced an impressive run of its own.
The following day the spotlight shone on partner teams competing in the oldest event on the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship calendar, the 12 Hours of Sebring. Magnus Racing, in only its second event with the Vantage GT3, looked likely to challenge for a repeat of the GTD class podium finish the team recorded in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.
Running inside the top five and only 10 seconds from the lead at the eight-hour mark, Andy Lally (USA) suffered minor contact with another car; a resultant spin and slow puncture leading to an unscheduled pitstop for fresh tyres. He, Spencer Pumpelly (USA) and John Potter (USA) finished sixth.
The Heart of Racing also showed great promise with Alex Riberas (ESP) qualifying the #23 Vantage GT3 fourth in GTD Pro, but he and works drivers Maxime Martin (BEL) and Ross Gunn (GBR) suffered an early issue that ultimately led to a retirement. GTD competitors Ian James (GBR), Roman De Angelis (CDN) and Tom Gamble (GBR) ran well inside the top-10 for the first two hours, but then had to go ‘behind the wall’ themselves; the trio taking 15th at the flag.
Earlier in the weekend, Aston Martin surged into the lead of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Manufacturers’ Championship thanks to a battling second-place finish by the Volt Racing Vantage GT4 driven by Trent Hindman and Alan Brynjolfsson. Their result in the two-hour race at Sebring also put the pair into a tie for the lead of the Drivers’ Championship and Volt into a similar position in the Teams’ standings. NTE Sport’s Josh Hurley and Manny Franco scored their best-ever finish in 10th while Automatic Racing’s Ramin Abdolvahabi and Rob Ecklin were second in the Bronze Cup.
Huw Tasker, Head of Customer Racing, said: “This is great start to the season for Vantage. To record a historic 50th win in WEC, take second place, and secure pole position, is about as good as it can get, and this is exactly the right tone to set for the season ahead. We’re pleased for Paul Dalla Lana, who has waited a long time to secure a victory with this version of the Vantage GTE. And Ben Keating ran him hard all the way; both look like they will be title contenders this season. Speaking of which, it was great to be here to see the Volt Lightning Vantage GT4 record another podium in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, which put Alan Brynjolfsson and Trent Hindman to the top of the standings.”
The FIA WEC series now moves on to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, on Saturday, 7 May, while the next round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship takes place at Long Beach on Sunday, 10 April.